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Donagh Meyler

Donagh Meyler was thinking that he might ride Phil’s Magic in Wednesday’s Paddy Power Chase at Leopardstown.  His boss Tony Martin had two in the race, Phil’s Magic and Anibale Fly, and there wasn’t much between them in Meyler’s eyes.  But he and Phil’s Magic had had good times together, they had won a Midlands National at Kilbeggan together, and the horse had done a good piece of work at The Curragh during the week.

Then Tony Martin called him aside a few days before the race: ride Anibale Fly.

“Tony is such a good judge,” says Meyler.  “He has been through it all, he has so much experience, and he has been so good to me.  I was delighted when he told me to ride Anibale Fly.”

Sometimes races go to plan, and this was one of them.  When your horse is travelling well and jumping well, you can follow the plan. 

Meyler and Anibale Fly got a good start and secured a nice early position just behind the leaders and along the inside.  Clad in the famous JP McManus green and gold, but with a distinguishing red cap, the jockey quickly had his horse into a nice racing rhythm, relaxed, conserving energy.  The field stretched out going down the back straight, the leaders got away a little, but Meyler didn’t panic.  It is a long way from the middle of the back straight to the winning line at Leopardstown in December. 

Disputing sixth place with Denis O’Regan on old friend Phil’s Magic as they left the back straight, Meyler and Anibale Fly moved up nicely on the outside and jumped into third place over the second last fence.  They hit the front on the run to the final fence, and the rider kicked. 

No more than a length clear of their rivals on landing over the last, Meyler asked his horse for maximum effort on the run up the hill.  He could hear the others behind him, but he didn’t look.  He pushed and shoved and kicked all the way up to the winning line and, clear of his rivals when he got there, he allowed himself a subtle gesticulation, more a clenched fist than a punch in the air: “Yes!”

“I was comfortable at every stage of the race,” says the rider.  “He did everything I asked of him.  He gave me a great feel the whole way around.  I hit the front earlier than I wanted to, but he was travelling so well.  And he stays well, he stayed on strongly up the run-in.  It was some feeling, hitting the line.  I’m still pinching myself.”

A big race win is not a new phenomenon in Meyler’s career.  In a golden three-month spell between the summer and the autumn of 2016, he won the Galway Plate on Lord Scoundrel and he won the Munster National on Tiger Roll.   Both horses were trained by Gordon Elliott, both owned by Gigginstown House Stud. 

“That was brilliant.  To win a Galway Plate was fantastic, to win it for Gordon and for Gigginstown, and then to win the Munster National a couple of months later for them was unbelievable.  If I am honest, though, I probably didn’t appreciate it all at the time.  It all happened so quickly.”

Meyler’s profile went high-rise, his career based on solid foundations.  A Kilkenny native, after starting off with local trainer Eoin Doyle, he spent a short while with Jim Bolger before moving to Noel Meade’s and then to Tony Martin’s.

“Noel had his conditional riders at the time, and he just thought that there would be more opportunities for me at Tony’s.  I got great experience at Noel’s though.  It was great to get to ride top class horses and to school horses with Paul Carberry and Nina Carberry and Davy Condon.”

A good claiming rider is usually in demand.  Inexperienced riders are allowed to claim weight off the horses that they ride, the horses are allowed carry less than their allotted weight in order to compensate for the rider’s inexperience and in order to encourage owners and trainers to give inexperienced jockeys the opportunities that they need.  When you happen upon a good claiming rider, however, there can be a significant advantage in that.  A 3lb or 5lb or 7lb claim can provide a considerable edge in a competitive handicap if you have a good claiming rider on your side.

Meyler was a good claiming rider and, consequently, he was in demand.  The problem with that is that you can quickly burn through your claim.  Tony Martin’s two Paddy Power Chase horses have played key roles in Meyler’s career.  It was on Anibale Fly on whom the young rider rode his first winner, as an amateur in a bumper at Navan in March 2015, and it was on Phil’s Magic on whom he rode his last winner as a claiming professional, when he won the Midlands National on him at Kilbeggan in July this year. 

That’s just over two years with a claim.  Two years to establish yourself as a jockey before you have to compete with Ruby Walsh and Davy Russell and Barry Geraghty on level terms.

“I got great support when I was claiming,” says Meyler.  “It does dry up when you lose your claim.  It’s natural.  It happens to everyone.  I wouldn’t change anything though.  It was great to ride those winners.  It’s just a matter of getting on with it now, putting your head down, kicking on and working hard.” 

And he does.  He is in Tony Martin’s three or four days a week, and he rides out for Arthur Moore and Noel Meade and Karl Thornton one day a week each.  He would love to get around more trainers, but there are only so many days in the week.

“The trainers I ride for are very good to me, so I want to be loyal to them.  Tony has been great to me.  I have been there three years now, and I have learned so much.  He has made me the rider that I am today.  It was brilliant to ride a big winner for him.  It was great for the yard, great for the staff.  The yard hasn’t had that good a year so far, so hopefully this win makes up for a lot.”

Head down again now, kick on.


© The Sunday Times, 31st December 2017